Jacob's Pillow, Before the Rain

August 14, 2011

Jodi Melnick and David Neumann both have an arresting gaze when they look straight out at the audience. They hold you with their eyes. But while Jodi is intense, and steady in that intensity, David is always giving us the slip. Now he’s a conman, now he’s a clown. We eat it up. And his moves can be as slippery as Jodi’s. They are both, in very different ways, riveting performers.

I saw their shared concert at Jacob’s Pillow Saturday afternoon, and then Trisha Brown’s company that evening. Just to lay it all out right now, I’ve danced with Jodi in a Sara Rudner work, and I was a member of Trisha’s company in the 70s. So this trip was like visiting my dance siblings.

Back to Jodi and David: Jodi’s presence combines a sculptural quality with the flat-out glamour of a Hollywood star. Think Rita Hayworth. But she also has the attention to detail and fluidity of a Trisha Brown dancer. (She never actually danced with her but has assisted Trisha in staging her operas.) In her solo Fanfare, her striking beauty is framed by Burt Barr’s set design: two electric fans on either side of the stage, projecting huge shadows behind her. (I wrote about Fanfare when it was new in 2009.) It gets pretty sexy when Jodi’s sitting on the floor, legs in a diamond shape like the bounces at the beginning of a Graham class, and she softly, ever so slowly, presses her pelvis upward.

David’s a physical comedian by stealth. His solo, Tough the Tough (redux) presents a man caught in an existential bind—endearingly so, sometimes hilariously so. The recorded narrative, by Will Eno, portrays a man named Steve caught between bravado and self doubt. Whether raucously funny, as when he gets tangled in a bunch of folding chairs, or quietly unstable, as when he shifts his weight an inch forward and back, Neumann is a poignant figure who never quite finds his place.


David’s earlier piece, Hit the Deck (Studies and Accidents) with his Advanced Beginner Group (including the funny-turned-serious presence of tenor Timothy Fallon), interested me mainly for its use of the outer stage space, for instance chairs flying into or out of the wings. He used that marginal space in a way that I knew we would see again in Trisha’s Foray Forêt and Set and Reset later that day.

The surprise was July, the commission from the Pillow that brought Jodi and David together in a duet. It turns out to be a great partnership. How shall I put it? She gives him class and he gives her mischief. It starts with her as still as a statue, with one arm extended against the backdrop of nature—real trees, because the back of the theater has been opened. The audience gasped. When David enters, they bump right away. Thus begins a series of soft crashes that punctuate this subtle, intimate, and strange duet. When they’re on the floor, she presses on his lungs, then kneels on his groin. At one point, he holds her in an embrace and she erupts out of it. She doesn’t pull away, but kind of bolts up as though suddenly called skyward.


Jodi Melnick and David Neumann in
July. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.



is not really erotic, not really tender, but has some other quality that’s unnamable. You don’t know what’s going on but you don’t need to. You just know that these two artists, who are so different, are now engaged in some mysterious interplay with each other. Maybe it’s a series of memories of every previous July.

Seeing the Trisha Brown Company after this was a reminder of how related Melnick’s subtle sense of fluidity is to Brown’s. Jodi did dance with Vicky Shick, who danced with Trisha—and Vicky was my theater companion that day. I could see some of Vicky’s femininity, patience, and spareness in Jodi’s work—and some of Susan Rethorst’s too.

I’ve written a lot about Trisha Brown, most recently in my post about Trisha and Yvonne Rainer. In contrast to Jodi and David, Trisha’s dancers rarely look directly into the audience. It’s like you just happen to see them doing their work. The new piece, Les Yeux et l’âme, has interesting partner work, reminiscent of the astounding last section of her Newark (feet and hips lift as often as hands). But it seemed unfinished, and I didn’t realize till later that it was part of a larger work, an opera that premiered last year.

To these eyes (and this responding body), Foray Forêt came alive when Laurel Tintendo was dancing. She leapt and swooshed and sliced her way through with an exhilarating, full-body momentum. (if you want to know how she does it, see her Technique My Way.) And of course, Set and Reset is always a pleasure to watch for its constant, unfolding inventiveness—though I miss Trisha’s sense of play from back when she was dancing in it.

I love to wander around the Pillow and drink in the history that’s there. A small group of iconic photographs by Barbara Morgan greets you in the Doris Duke Theatre, and the photographs of another iconic camera woman, Annie Leibovitz line the walls of Blake’s Barn. This is a feast, and you could spend days just grazing on these gorgeous images. Not to mention spending time in the side room watching videos. And now there is now the Virtual Pillow, (see our “Dance Matters” on this) so you can feast from afar.


I also caught a glimpse of the Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance students strutting their stuff on the Inside/Out stage for a packed audience—including families picnicking.

And I sat in on a stimulating panel on Online Dance, expertly moderated by Pillow scholar Maura Keefe. During a volatile discussion, writer Debra Levine (of artsmeme) said her hope was “that dance takes its rightful place among the other arts.” Hear hear.